Culture At Large

Goodbye to Gnosticism?

Andy Rau

With all the highly-sensationalized ancient Christian and Gnostic texts that have surfaced over the last few decades--some of them described as potentially faith-shaking--why has there been so little actual effect on Christian theology? From the Nag Hammadi texts to the recent Gospel of Judas, plenty of Gnostic texts have promised to overturn centuries of Christian theology, but their impact on the church has been minimal.

Part of the reason for this, one scholar now suggests, is that Gnosticism may not have actually existed as a the clearly-defined anti-Christian religion depicted by church historians and pop novelists alike. The reason that Gnostic texts aren't shaking up Christian theology is that many of them turn out to bear more similarities than differences to ancient church doctrine:

One provocative notion she [ecclesiastical historian Karen King] sets forth is that to view Gnosticism solely in terms of its opposition to normative Christianity — heresy versus orthodoxy, public confession versus private teaching — impedes an understanding that it was the similarities between the Gnostics and their orthodox opponents, and not the differences, that fueled intense conflict in the early church.

Early in What is Gnosticism?, Ms. King observes that anti-Gnostic polemicists "took their rivals so seriously and denounced them so emphatically precisely because their views were in many respects so similar to the polemicists' own."

This line of argumentation suggests that Gnostics and their doctrines are better understood as myriad variants of Christianity that varied widely in their adherence traditional church doctrine--a multitude of small heresies, rather than a single coherent philosophy.

Of course, if true, this doesn't mean that these Gnostic texts are correct, and Christians are right to subject their religious claims to close Biblical scrutiny. And I'm not learned enough to know whether King's analysis is correct or not. But it's an interesting reminder that church history isn't always as cut-and-dried as it seems at first glance. And it's another good reason to roll your eyes the next time an over-enthusiastic scholar or journalist predicts the death of traditional church doctrine at the hands of "newly discovered ancient revelations!"

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Theology, News & Politics, History